If you’ve ever used a Microsoft Windows PC (which I’m guessing is a group that includes 99.999% of the people reading this, even the Mac Faithful out there), chances are very, very, very good that you’ve seen the above image.
It’s appropriately titled Bliss, and was expertly shot in 1996 by Napa “are we sick of hearing about this place yet” Valley resident and former National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear, while he was heading from his home to visit his girlfriend (now wife), with whom he was working on a book about wine country. Alert for good images of the area, he while driving along California State Route 12/121 and stopped to take Bliss during a time when the area was particularly green (from recent rains). Ironically, it was also when the now-famous hillside in the photo was fallow (it was in-between vine plantings at the time, with the original vines having to be pulled out due to an invasive vineyard pest infestation), a relative rarity for that area of California wine country.
O’Rear sold the image to Microsoft many years ago, and it has been one of the default background images for Microsoft Windows ever since (specifically, for Windows XP… yes, Mac-lovers, it was visible right before XP crashed into the Blue Screen Of Death… I admit that I’m just jealous of your computer’s stability and chic cool aesthetics, okay?).
Due to its default background-image status in Windows XP, the incredible ubiquity of that particular operating system, and the fact that it ran on personal computers for nearly twenty years, Bliss is very likely now the single most viewed image of all time, having been seen by well over one billion people worldwide. Almost just as astonishingly, the photo as you know and love it is completely unaltered. Bliss is probably the ultimate #nofilter image of all time so far!
Of course, the true number of people who have seen Bliss is impossible to validate, but the very real possibility that a wine country image might be the most recognizable photo in the world should be an intriguing one for wine lovers. Bliss puts wine country imagery somewhere in the Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima territory of iconic lens work, which is really an incredible accomplishment, and an impressive feather in the caps of both O’Rear and Sonoma County.
O’Rear was paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to the photo, but according to several sources (including the Napa Valley Register) it’s been estimated that the amount tendered to him by Microsoft would make Bliss among the most expensive photos of all time, possibly fetching the second-largest payment for a photo in history at the time (for many years, apparently the number one slot in that department went to a shot of former president Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky).
This makes Sonoma potentially the single most-viewed wine region in world photographic history, yet somewhat ironically not a grape or bottle is in sight in the picture.That particular idyllic hillside has changed much in the ensuing years since O’Rear and Microsoft teamed up to make it famous, having been planted with vines. While many have tried to recreate the photo’s magic, none of ever really come close to matching the original.
To help commemorate the death of Windows XP, Microsoft actually created a video of O’Rear revisiting the now iconic site back in 2014. As Slate reported at the time, O’Rear didn’t consider that there was anything unusual about the photo when he took it, apart from the visual being naturally stunning, that is. In fact, O’Rear quite humbly attributed the dynamic results of Bliss to the film and camera/lens combination he chose to use at the time:
“There was nothing unusual. I used a film that had more brilliant colors, the Fuji Film at that time, and the lenses of the RZ67 were just remarkable. The size of the camera and film together made the difference and I think helped the Bliss photograph stand out even more. I think if I had shot it with 35 millimeter, it would not have nearly the same effect.”
I find this little congruence of wine country and technology fascinating, but I’m a self-confessed geek. Personally, I’m actually a bit sick of seeing that photo (having worked in the Information Technology field during Windows XP’s heyday), but that’s not because I don’t think it’s a lovely shot (it is); it is merely contempt bred from familiarity, which is exactly how I have often felt about many wine grape varieties (hey, even wine professionals can get jaded from time to time).
Photo: The Transylvania Times
Part of Bliss’ universal and undying appeal is of course the simple, breathtaking beauty of the Sonoma region itself. But another — and equally important — aspect is the skill of O’Rear as a photographer in how he rendered his subject. Simply put, the guy just takes amazing photographs, and his ability to capture the soul of California wine country locations such as Napa Valley is arguably only matched by the late, great Wes Walker. Anyone out there reading this who’s been to Sonoma or Napa Valley has probably taken a metric ton of photos trying to get one tenth the authenticity of the places as O’Rear was able to capture in Bliss (I’m certainly guilty!). But I’d wager several bottles of cult Napa Cabernet that few of them match the area as seen through the skilled eyes of professionals like Walker and O’Rear (no offense meant to any of you budding photographers out there, of course!).
To see more of O’Rear’s work that probably won’t breed familiar contempt, and which actually involves people, grapevines and bottles (including a really interesting and aesthetically pleasing foldout spread of the art on the foil caps that adorn the top of some of Napa’s most coveted bottles), check out O’Rear’s excellent book Napa Valley: The Land, The Wine, The People. It’s the kind of read that gives coffee table books a good name.